UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY
A Ukrainian soldier closes an entrance gate at the airforce base in the Crimean town of Belbek March 20, 2014. The United States warned Moscow it was on a "dark path" to isolation on Wednesday as Russian troops seized two Ukrainian naval bases, including a headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol where they raised their flag. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTR3HVJZ REUTERS
U.S. President Barack Obama expanded economic sanctions on Thursday as Russia all but cemented its plans to annex Crimea.
The sanctions target 20 individuals inside and outside the government, as well as Bank Rossiya, a private bank owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, who is considered to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's banker.
Obama said the sanctions are serious enough that he expects they will have a “significant impact” on the Russian economy and could disrupt the global economy as well.
Obama also called on Russia to scale back its military presence on the Ukrainian border and to respect Ukraine's new interim government.
“The Ukrainians shouldn’t have to choose between the West and Russia,” Obama said at a news conference on the White House lawn. “We want the Ukrainian people to determine their own destiny.”
The new measures come days after an initial wave of sanctions that the U.S. government said were the most comprehensive since the Cold War.
Russia immediately fired back by imposing entry bans on American lawmakers and senior White House officials, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner and Obama's senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer.
Russia also faces further sanctions from the European Union, which is set to meet in Brussels later Thursday.
In an address to the German Parliament in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU was readying further sanctions and that the G8 forum of leading economies had been suspended indefinitely. Russia holds the presidency of the G8 and President Vladimir Putin was due to host his counterparts, including President Barack Obama, at a summit in Sochi in June.
"So long as there aren't the political circumstances, like now, for an important format like the G8, then there is no G8," Merkel said.
Earlier this week, the EU and the United States slapped sanctions on certain individuals that were involved in what they say was the unlawful referendum in Crimea over joining Russia. Moscow formally annexed Crimea earlier this week in the wake of the poll. The Black Sea peninsula had been part of Russia for centuries until 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine.
Russian forces effectively took control of Crimea some two weeks ago in the wake of the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, after months of protests and sporadic violence.
Level 2 sanctions
The crisis erupted late last year after Yanukovych backed out of an association deal with the EU in favour of a promised $15 billion bailout from Russia. That angered Ukrainians from pro-European central and western regions.
Merkel said EU leaders would increase those "level 2" sanctions against Russia when they meet later Thursday in Brussels to widen the list of those whose assets are being frozen and who are banned from travelling.
She also reiterated that if things worsen, the EU is prepared to move to "level 3" measures, which would include economic sanctions.
"The European Council will make it clear today and tomorrow that with a further deterioration of the situation we are always prepared to take level 3 measures, and those will without a doubt include economic sanctions," she said.
If Russia was listening to Merkel, it paid no heed on Thursday. The Russian parliament's lower house endorsed the country's annexation of Crimea. The merger now only needs to be rubber-stamped by the upper house and signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, formalities expected to be completed by the end of the week.
Ukraine fears Russian invasion
Yurii Klymenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, warned Thursday Russia may invade again.
"There are indications that Russia is on its way to unleash a full blown military intervention in Ukraine's east and south," Klymenko said at a UN briefing on the human rights situation in Ukraine.
His statement was widely supported by other ambassadors, but denied by a Russian diplomat, who read a prepared statement justifying Russia's actions in Crimea.
The tensions have forced international leaders to string together a series of emergency meetings.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday. Before entering the talks, Ban said he was "deeply concerned" by the Ukrainian crisis.
He is set to travel to Kyiv tomorrow to hold talks with the new interim government there.
Troops mass near Ukraine border
Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers continue to mass near the Ukrainian border. Russian officials say they are there for training exercises.
Russian border guards also stepped up checks on goods entering the country from Ukraine, officials from the customs services and an agricultural inspection service said.
"Russian customs have increased customs checks, acting on information about possible attempts to bring contraband in from Ukraine," said spokesman Dmitry Kotikov.
Russia also announced Thursday that it would build up its defences in Crimea.
Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Borisov told state media Russia additional troops will protect against “all possible encroachments.”
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